This September marked the second anniversary of the death of Islam Karimov, the former President of Uzbekistan, and the de-facto accession to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who was later officially elected to the presidency in December 2016).
In record-breaking time President Mirziyoyev solved border disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which had previously been considered unsolvable, significantly strengthened relations with Kazakhstan, conducted sweeping economic reforms, and opened Uzbekistan to foreign investments.
The activity of the new reformist president led to positive changes not only in Uzbekistan itself, but in the region as a whole. The change of power in Uzbekistan – the most highly populated Central Asian country, located right in the middle of the region – marked the beginning of the Central Asian Spring, which, in contrast to the Arab Spring, has been characterized by gradual reforms and, above all, economic liberalization.
In March 2018, for the first time since the beginning of the 2000’s, a summit of the Central Asian countries’ leaders took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. It was attended by presidents of every country in the region (except Turkmenistan which was represented by the Chair of the country’s parliament). This summit, along with a notable strengthening of connections between the two most prominent countries of the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – laid the ground for talks regarding the creation of a new regional union, the goal of which would be to strengthen the economic independence of the Central Asian region, and later its political independence as well.
The first attempts at economic unification of Central Asian countries date back to the mid-1990’s, and were being undertaken as late as the mid-2000’s. However, each time those attempts were beset with insurmountable obstacles – the position of the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov who basically isolated Uzbekistan from any foreign influence, the border conflicts between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the personal ambitions of the Central Asian countries’ leaders.
It is rather ironic that Uzbekistan – which for а long time halted the process of regional integration – is today, along with Kazakhstan, its primary moving force. Riding the wave of “the Uzbek thaw,” and highlighted against the backdrop of problems associated with the functioning of the Eurasian economic Union, for the first time in many years the conditions for the creation of a regional union are favorable.
For now, the countries of the region are treading very carefully when it comes to this idea. There have been too many unsuccessful attempts at unification in the past, and interstate contradictions are still too strong, as well as the differences in the countries’ approach to issues. Besides, such unification may not be well liked by the “Big Neighbors” of the region – Russia and China – who may put forth efforts to prevent the emergence of a strong and independent regional player.
The geographic location of Central Asia also provides its opponents with an advantage: each country individually (and the region as a whole) is landlocked, and as a consequence the operation of logistical and energy chains is fully dependent on the goodwill of the “Big Neighbors.” Only fundamental changes to the very structure of the regions’ economy can help overcome this dependence. Such changes are now underway.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are striving to abandon the natural resource-dependent model and develop innovations. An example of that is the “Astana Hub” – a financial and technological center which has the capabilities to speed up the technological upgrading not just of Kazakhstan alone, but the entire Central Asian region.
The simultaneous development of an IT ecosystem of innovations in the countries of Central Asia will create new possibilities for regional collaboration, as well as for collaboration of the Central Asian IT sector with global centers of the IT industry.
Central Asia’s old economic model relied on each of the countries having different and separate economic relations with its “Big Neighbors” and – facilitated by those “Big Neighbors” acting as intermediaries – with countries of the West. The new Central Asian model envisions the five countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – being integrated into a common economic market and having direct connections with Western markets, bypassing the intermediary function of the “Big Neighbors.” As shown through the success of the European Bank’s ‘Investing in Central Asia’ forum which aimed to highlight opportunities for business expansion into the region, Central Asian countries will become integrated into the world ecosystem both in the information and economic realms.
However, in order to implement this plan both the Western business world and the political decision makers have lots of work ahead of them. As the new “IT tiger,” Central Asia may be interesting to the world industry’s giants only as a united region, and they must view it as such already, by extending a certain credibility to the new economic initiatives originating in that region. This means opening regional offices in the local IT clusters and entrusting them first with outsourcing and then with R&D, serving as evangelists of the new economy in contacts with representatives of the Central Asian countries’ governments, and considering the possibilities of investing into local startups jointly with governments. Western policymakers will need to get ready to provide the most favorable environment to the IT industry for any trade and economic relations with countries of the region.
As energy exports are the foundation of economic well-being for the majority of the region’s countries, it places those countries in the position of competitors who are dependent on their neighboring states, above all Russia and China. Developing advanced technologies, attracting Western investments and Western experience, and creating a Central Asian IT market will serve a dual purpose: in reducing the Central Asian countries’ dependence on their neighbors, and in becoming the catalyst for unification processes in the region.